Friday, May 15, 2009

No Mo, No Mo...No Mo, No Mo...

David Ortiz only wears the uniform no. 42 once a year, but he's looked a little too much like Mo Vaughn lately. Photo from

Even the most optimistic Red Sox fan has to be concerned today about David Ortiz, who had about the worst game imaginable in going 0-for-7 and stranding on base a team record-tying 12 runners in the Sox’ 5-4, 12-inning loss to the Angels Thursday. Sean McAdam of the Boston Herald notes that Ortiz was quite likely the difference between victory and defeat: Ortiz advanced just one runner in his seven at-bats.

Ortiz is hitting .163 in May and .208 overall and hasn’t hit a regular season home run (he homered in Game Five of the AL Championship Series) in 144 at-bats, one at-bat shy of the career-worst drought he endured from Sept. 12, 1998 through June 7, 2000 while he was in the Twins organization (he spent most of 1999 at Triple-A, where he hit 30 homers). This time, it only feels like it’s been 21 months between homers for Ortiz, whose slump is clearly beginning to wear on him.

He uttered just 14 words to reporters after the game Thursday: “I’m sorry guys, I don’t feel like talking now. Just put down ‘Papi stinks.’”

Even before the power went out, there were concerns Ortiz was entering his decline phase at age 33. Of course, there was nowhere to go but down after a monster 2006 in which he led the AL with 54 homers (a Sox record) and 137 RBI. But missing nearly two months last season with a torn tendon in his left wrist and finishing with just 23 homers and 89 RBI—the first time in his six-season Sox tenure that he fell short of 30 homers and 100 RBI—served as a reminder that bulky, one-dimensional power hitters don’t age well.

Ortiz is most often compared to ex-Sox slugger Mo Vaughn, who put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers with the Sox but faded away after signing with the Angels following his age-30 season. And it’s sure interesting that their reactions to potentially career-turning slumps are strikingly familiar. Earlier this week, Ortiz told reporters that he thinks about his home run drought “…every day. Sleeping. Eating. Having breakfast.”

He then colorfully added he also thinks about the slump while he’s going to the bathroom. “It’s bad,” Ortiz said.

Vaughn began 2002—his first and only full season with the Mets—by hitting .234 with four homers, 18 RBI and 41 strikeouts in 145 at-bats through May 31. “Nothing’s right when you don’t play well,” Vaughn said (I’d link the story, except I wrote it for a website that no longer exists—story of my life). “The food don’t taste right. The drinks don’t taste right. Everyday ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”

Ortiz is still on pace to better the numbers Vaughn put up in the four seasons beginning with his 31st birthday (Vaughn missed his age-33 season, 2001, with a torn biceps). Vaughn hit .267 with 98 homers, 312 RBI, a .356 on-base percentage and a .481 slugging percentage over his last four seasons with the Angels and Mets. Since turning 31, Ortiz has hit .293 with 58 homers, 221 RBI, a .404 on-base percentage and a .543 slugging percentage.

But here’s an alarming note to sound about Ortiz: Among his peers, at least, this slump puts him in unchartered territory.

Ortiz is tied for 18th among active big leaguers with 289 homers. Of those players, only three—Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Ivan Rodriguez—have endured home run droughts longer than the one Ortiz is mired within. But Rodriguez (289 at-bats as a 20- and 21-year-old with the Rangers in 1992-93), Sheffield (260 at-bats as a 20-year-old with the Brewers in 1989) and Giambi (162 at-bats as a 25- and 26-year-old with the Athletics in 1996-97) and were far younger and at the beginning of their careers when they slumped.

None of the players with 289 or more homers have endured a drought like Ortiz’ in their 30s. Rodriguez (171 at-bats last season at age 36) comes closest. Five others have had homer droughts of at least 100 at-bats following their 30th birthday: Vladimir Guerrero (124 at-bats at age 32 in 2007), Carlos Delgado (116 at-bats at age 34 in 2006-07), Todd Helton (112 at-bats at age 33 in 2006-07), Lance Berkman (111 at-bats at age 32 in 2008) and Chipper Jones (101 at-bats at age 30 in 2002).

Vaughn’s longest power outage following his 30th birthday, by the way, was 62 at-bats at age 33 in 2002. His longest homer drought occurred as a 22-year-old rookie in 1991, when he went 109 at-bats between blasts.

Vaughn did recover from his slow start in 2002 to finish with a .259 average, 26 homers and 72 RBI—decent numbers, but also the worst of his career up to that point. He hit just .190 with three homers and 15 RBI in 2003 before going on the disabled list in early May with what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury.

At this point, the Sox would presumably be thrilled if Ortiz had the type of season Vaughn had in 2002 (and ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, Ortiz is on pace for 71 RBI as of this typing). They’d be even happier if the similarities stopped there

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